Christmas Guest

Announced by the squeals of the bird she killed on Christmas Eve-Eve. I was slow to investigate, she flew off before I could get a picture. When she announced her presence again on Christmas Eve (in the same fashion), I ran to get the camera and snapped off as many pictures as I could. She was right in front of me, huge and powerful - probably the biggest bird this garden has seen since before it was a garden - but on the LCD screen she was a small grainy image, digitally enlarged and half-obscured by smears on the window. She looked around as the life left the bundle of black feathers in her talons, looked right at me a few times, quizzically, and then turned and swept herself away on wide wings.



It's Christmas Eve Eve - the day before Christmas Eve! I hope everyone is experiencing the proper levels of childish excitement. Two of my favourite Christmas movies are on TV today: A Muppet Christmas Carol and Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, making it easy to get into the festive spirit.

I'm going to be busy having Christmas over the next couple of days, so let me just leave you with a little treat: fast-talking, bearded American Todd Barber, lead propulsion engineer for Cassini, has a holiday video message from Saturn here, complete with captions for the hard of hearing. It's a video message of alien mountains and organic dunes, which, after all, is what Christmas is all about.

I hope you all have a lovely, stress-free Christmas with much warmth, happiness and consumption of traditional foodstuffs. ¡Feliz navidad!


Carl Sagan

Ten years after his death to the day (and almost 30 years after Sagan filmed this), much has changed. Some things are better, some worse, some just the same.

Sagan would certainly be glad to see that nuclear weapons are no longer a problem. At least, I assume so, otherwise we'd all be talking about them, wouldn't we?

December 20 is the 10th anniversary of the day we lost Carl Sagan. From its founding in 1980 until the day he died in 1996, Carl served as Chairman of the Board of The Planetary Society. The organization lost a brilliant and charismatic leader. I lost an inspirational boss and a good friend.

Louis D. Friedman writing at the Planetary Society Blog.

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the day we lost Carl Sagan. He was a true skeptic; a man whose mind was open to possibilities, yet able to cut away the chaff of pseudoscience and blind alleys. Even when facing death — a slow, painful, wasting death — he was able to turn it into a series of lessons on science, medicine, and critical thinking. Many people, perhaps most people, would have clung to any idea, no matter how irrational, to make themselves feel better. Carl didn’t do that. He couldn’t. He not only relied on science, he reveled in it.

Phil Plait writing at Bad Astronomy.

The choice is stark and ironic. The same rocket boosters used to launch probes to the planets are poised to send nuclear warheads to the nations. The radioactive power sources on Viking and Voyager derive from the same technology that makes nuclear weapons. The radio and radar techniques employed to track and guide ballistic missiles and defend against attack are also used to monitor and command the spacecraft on the planets and to listen for signals from civilisations near other stars. If we use these technologies to destroy ourselves, we surely will venture no more to the planets and the stars. But the converse is also true. If we continue to the planets, and the stars, our chauvinisms will be shaken further. We will gain a cosmic perspective. We will recognise that our explorations can be carried out only on behalf of all the people of the planet Earth. We will invest our energies in an enterprise devoted not to death but to life: the expansion of our understanding of the Earth and its inhabitants and the search for life elsewhere.


For we are the local embodiment of a Cosmos grown to self-awareness. We have begun to contemplate our origins: starstuff pondering the stars,; organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose. Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for Earth. Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring.

Carl Sagan, writing in the final chapter of Cosmos, a chapter entitled: Who speaks for Earth?


21st July 1969

This photo was taken by Michael Collins. Collins is the Apollo 11 astronaut whose name you can't remember because he wasn't the first man on the moon and he didn't have a cool nickname like 'Buzz'.

The Trouble with Rod Liddle

I watched Rod Liddle's The Trouble with Atheism last night. It makes me sorry that I missed Richard Dawkins' The Root of All Evil? as this show was clearly intended as a response to it. I caught the end of the first part of Root where, after a series of encounters with religious nutjobs, Dawkins explained he was going to speak to a more moderate religious voice: a Jewish Israeli who had converted to Islam, and who Dawkins expected to have a sensible insider's view of religious conflict. Instead, Dawkins found himself sitting across a table from the most memorable lunatic of that year in television, a man who responded to one of Dawkins' questions with one of his own: "Why don't you [in the west] sort out your women?"

Liddle's show was an attempt to show that faith is not a problem and that disbelief can be as dogmatic and dangerous as the religions it opposes. I think that Liddle's attempts in this regard can be left as they are. "Atheism is a peculiar thing," Liddle told us early on, "it's a belief in a negative." No, it's just not believing in any gods. It's not peculiar: it's the way you're born. What I really want to tackle here is the reason that I watched the show in the first place, Liddle's rather embarrassing argument against 'Darwinism'.

Thankfully, Liddle, while ignorant, is clearly not stupid. He didn't take a creationist stance at all, instead an eminently sensible (but shamefully ignorant) scientific view of things. Darwin's The Origin of Species is atheism's 'sacred text' Liddle told us. After explaining how Darwin's fantastic intuitive leap described the natural process that shapes the variety of life on Earth, Riddle then claimed that 'Darwinism' is the keystone of atheism - atheists using it as dogma rather than science.

This would come as a surprise to population geneticist George Price. An atheist, Price was one of the main scientists responsible for our understanding of the evolution of altruism. Price was so astounded to see that goodness arose from natural law that it convinced him of the existence of God and he became a devout Christian. It also comes as a surprise to me. I lost my shred of religion while reading Carl Sagan muse about why we felt the need to invent supernatural and mystical ideas with no evidence to support them when such beautiful natural phenomena exist right in front of us.

So why does Liddle assert that Darwinism is such a big part of atheism? The obvious answer is that Darwin showed how natural law could lead to the beauty of the world, without recourse to a creator. This much, I'll agree, is correct. But, before Darwin came along, the lack of evidence for natural processes wasn't evidence for gods. And if we take Price's tack, evidence for natural processes isn't evidence against gods either. Liddle went further, asserting that Darwinism is the 'only' such natural law, and therefore is of fundamental importance to atheism. But what about continental drift? It explains how breathtaking mountain ranges were created by natural processes. Does that mean that before we had evidence for continental drift, that was evidence that Thor chiselled out the Himalayas with his hammer? And does it mean that continental drift is now an important part of atheism?

Liddle also asserted that atheists are taking Darwinism too far. He certainly got a few talking heads - philosophers and historians - to say that, yes, Darwinism is now being applied to things where it has no relevance. What exactly? Liddle gave us only one example: that Darwinism is being used to explain the existence of religions. Specifically, that religions are 'memes': viral ideas that propagate by a kind of 'survival of the catchiest'. Liddle rebutted this by speaking to a Christian immunologist who thought it was preposterous that religions were like 'viruses that infect you in your sleep'. While he was clearly being humorous here, it isn't much of an argument. If Liddle wanted to show that religion isn't viral he should perhaps have shown us how people choose religions by weighing up their pros and cons, rather than just being inculcated with the same one as their parents or culture. I wonder why he didn't? More seriously, he could have looked at the world's main religions and seen which one's have viral characteristics, for example which ones say that you'll go to Hell if you don't believe in them. I don't know, perhaps those ones are actually in the minority. I certainly didn't find out from Liddle.

Most embarrassing was Liddle's attempt to argue that Darwinism is dogma. It's '147 years old', Liddle tells us, implying that it hasn't changed in all that time. He failed to show us images of biologists in labs and jungles looking at nature, then consulting the Origin of Species and going, "Ah yes! It's really all in here!" Again, I wonder why.

It was when Liddle claimed that 'many scientists' believe that there are holes in Darwinism that I expected him to visit the Discovery Institute or something similar. Imagine my surprise when he spoke to an evolutionary biologist, and I realised that he was quite right. The problem is that he was also enormously ignorant. The biologist (who Liddle keenly told us was 'agnostic') argues that while Darwin explained how adaptions propagate, there is another (natural, genetic) explanation for where the adaptions come from. As near as I could tell, Liddle has been confused by one of the genuine controversies about evolution - the respective importance of natural selection and genetic drift. This scientist clearly felt that the latter was the more important - but did not dispute the fact of the former.

Liddle took the information that Darwin doesn't have the whole story as evidence of atheist dogma. Darwin will eventually be 'superseded' by a better understanding of evolution, Riddle asserts, as is the nifty way of science - thus flying in the face of atheists. And therein lies the spectacular ignorance - an ignorance whose perspective I've been writing from since the third paragraph. Liddle must be living in a cave, or have very, very old biology textbooks. 'Darwinism' has already been superseded by better science. In fact, our understanding of evolution is now properly called Neo-Darwinian evolution.

Lets go back to Dawkins. Dawkins acquitted himself very well in the show, but strangely didn't feature at all during Liddle's attack on Darwinism. Dawkins, when writing on evolution (he is an evolutionary biologist, lest you forget), asserts that, from the standpoint of evolution, all that matters are genes*. But hang on: Darwinism is 147 years old… and we've only known about genes for half a century or so! What's going on? Time travel? Perhaps Darwin wrote about genes, but no-one noticed it until recently? Or is Dawkins an anti-Darwinist himself? The fact is, Darwin didn't write about genes, because he didn't know about them. There were also things that he got wrong, and there are some aspects of evolution that Darwin proposed which are now under debate (such as sexual selection). The Origin of Species is not the holy book that Liddle would like us to believe. It's a scientific book, and as such has been tested, altered and expanded upon - by both atheist scientists and scientists of many different religions (although most scientists are atheists). No religion does this with their 'sacred text'.

To summarise:

Liddle says that Darwinism is a fundamental tenet of atheism.
-This is false. The only tenet of atheism is not believing in any gods.

Liddle implies that Darwinism is dogma.
-This is false. We have a much better and considerably different understanding of evolution than Darwin did.

Liddle says that Darwinism will be superseded by better science.
-This is sort of true and sort of false. It has already been superseded by better science.

What exactly was the point of that? I really don't understand what Liddle thought that this would achieve. I half believe that Liddle originally intended to launch a creationist assault on evolution, realised how stupid that would be and then tried to create a more nuanced, (mostly) scientific attack on 'Darwinism'. On the plus side, he may have given some religious crazies a mildly better understanding of biology. I can only hope that someone does the same for him.

*This is of course from the standpoint of evolution. From the standpoint of, say, everyday life, genes aren't important at all, instead things like kindness, sense of humour and taste in movies are what matters. In the same vein, from the standpoint of shampoo what matters is whether you're greasy, dry or frizzy, but this in no way implies that we should segregate people by their hair-type or something. More on this in my next post.


Sunday Scribblings: A Story about Anticipation

My problem has always been that I'm such a fucking optimist. Nothing good ever comes from it. This very short story was made possible by the music of U2 and Miles Davis. Blame them, not me. More scribbles on this theme here.

Five Twenty-Three

Almost six 'o'clock. The sun is low on the jagged mountaintops, deep orange and shrouded in thick grey clouds. The air is chilly, but heat rises from below, from somewhere deep beneath the rolling, ashen landscape of long-cooled primordial lava. A few metres ahead of me, warm water laps gently at the lake's edge. And the occasional splash heralds some lazy movement on the part of the creatures.

I sit on my coat watching the mirror-like surface of the water. It ripples hypnotically, amidst a landscape of rock-strewn waves that have been for frozen for aeons. The far side of the lake is halfway to the edge of the horizon. Between here and there, great herds of the creatures bob slowly on the water, like living sailboats with a coating of translucent green blubber.

Beside me she says, "That was amazing! They're such docile animals! I wouldn't have thought they were capable of doing something so… so… so amazing!" She wipes tears from the corners of her eyes with her thumb. "It was beautiful. And this is the only place left where you can still find them?"

I nod, reaching for my camera, turning it off and starting to fold the tripod.

She rests her head on her knees. "Humans must be stupid. That we'd not care about destroying something so beautiful."

A gust of wind ploughs in from one side, sending a cascade of small waves across the lake. The creatures turn languidly - some into the wind so that their crests of transparent membrane don't push them off course, others trying to catch more of the breeze to propel themselves across the surface of the water.

She turns to me and pulls on my sleeve. "How often do they do that?" she asks.

"Every day at five twenty-three," I tell her.

"So if I come here at that time tomorrow, I'll see it again? But does it get old the more you see it?"

I laugh and shake my head. "No, it's different every time."

"Wow," she says softly. "But always this beautiful?"

I dry my eyes on my handkerchief and blow my nose. "Always this beautiful."

"Will you be here tomorrow?" she asks.

I carefully slide my camera into its bag. "Of course. I always have to be here. Someone has to record all this before it's gone for good."

She stands, unsteadily, stretching her legs. "I have to go, I'm already late. Would you mind if I came here tomorrow?"

"Don't worry about me. You can do whatever you want, as long as you don't disturb them." I gesture to the nearest bobbing creature as it sifts the murky water with its soft tentacles.

She nods. "I can't wait. The day at work always seems to take so long. This'll only make it seem so much longer."

We exchange a little more small talk and then she leaves with a little smile. I hear her clambering over loose rocks behind me in her oversized Wellington boots. I watch the creatures as they slowly start to turn side-on to the setting sun, trying to catch the last warm rays of ruddy light. New behaviour, a response to the way the water's increasing pH breaks down the crest's thin membrane, makes it harder for them to cope with changes in temperature.

The days seem long to my new friend, but to me they go too quickly.



G[eorge]: This is where... This is where you're wrong, I, I don't know how to make this any clearer. Let's try this. Write down 1 cent. How do you write down 1 cent?

A[ndrea]: Point zero one.

G: How do you write down half a cent?

A: Uhhh, that would be point zero zero five of a cent.

G: Okay.

A: [laughing] I don't know, I'm not a mathematician. All I'm telling you is I can tell you that with the calculator...

G: Yep.

A: ...and we take the .002 as everybody has told you that you've called in and spoke to...

G: Yes, but...

A: ...and as our system bill accordingly, is correct.

G: But you said .002 *cents*. Why don't you just write it down on a piece of paper. You have .002 *cents* not dollars. .002 *cents*...

A: Right

G: ...times my 35,893. It's a number, but it's still in *cents*. If you quoted me .002 *dollars*, everything is correct. If you quoted me .002 dollars, which represents two tenths of one cent - per kilobyte, then everything is fine. But I wasn't quoted two tenths of one cent, I was quoted two one-thousandths of one cent. I was quoted .002 cents. It's a terminology problem. You guys are quoting .002 dollars as if it's cents, simply because there's a decimal point involved.

A: We're not quoting .002 dollars, we're quoting .002 *cents*

G: Ah, God.. Honestly.

A: I mean the computer is calculating the, the figure here...

G: I know it is, it's... it's a terminology issue...

A: ...and we are calculating the figure here, and we're all coming up with the same thing - except for you.

G: .002 cents is different than .002 dollars. I'm being charged .002 dollars per kilobyte. .002 dollars is one tenth of one... I mean, two tenths of one cent.

A: Okay, well, I mean it's obviously a difference of opinion...

G: It's not opinion! This is.. this is..

A: ...the amount that you're billed for the data usage is entirely correct.

G: [exasperated] Ah, God.. Okay, well, you know what, I'm gonna post this recording on my blog, and...

A: And that's, if that's what you want to do, that's fine.

And lo, he did.

Typepad Really Does Hate Me

I was always under the impression that Typepad was an excellent blog host, but I just keep encountering problems.
We're sorry...

Your comment has not been posted because we think it may be comment spam. We routinely monitor comment activity and block comments that exhibit patterns of abuse. We apologize if you believe you've reached this message in error.

Nous sommes désolés...

Votre commentaire n'a pas été posté car nous pensons qu'il puisse être du spam. Nous surveillons continuellement l'activité des commentaires et nous bloquons les commentaires qui nous semblent abusifs. Nous vous présentons nos excuses si vous pensez que vous avez atteint ce message par erreur.

Lo sentimos...

Su comentario no se ha publicado porque creemos que podría tratarse de spam. Monitorizamos la actividad de los comentarios de forma rutinaria para bloquear los comentarios que muestran signos de abuso. Lo sentimos si cree que ha llegado a este mensaje por error.

It seems that Typepad has banned one or more of the IP Addresses used by people with my dial-up ISP. I got this message when submitting a comment on one Typepad blog, disconnected, re-connected and then re-submitted the exact same comment - and it went through. Presumably because I had been assigned a different IP number. Then, after disconnecting and re-connecting again, I encountered the same problem on another blog.

And I have to love the way they tell me. First of all, no way to contact them and argue my case. Second of all, "We apologize if you believe you've reached this message in error." They apologise if I think it's an error, but of course, Typepad would never really make an error - I just think they have.

I can't even comment if I sign into my Typekey account.

Apparently Typepad has been having problems with spam lately. Well, whether they intended to or not, they've also put an end to their space cat 'problem'. Fuck off Typepad.

Update 13/12
I got a more informative and less rude comment from Typepad this time:

Your comment has not been posted because the computer you are using appears on a list of machines exploitable by spammers. You can fix the problem by consulting the following results:

sbl-xbl.spamhaus.org - http://www.spamhaus.org/query/bl?ip=[ip address deleted]

Not a spammer? You can post your comment by proving that you're a human below.

It's not 'my computer' though, it's one of many ip addresses used by people on my ISP. It seems that some of the people on my ISP are part of a botnet sending spam. This has had some of our collective ip addresses listed on CBL, which seems to be an automated means of tracking which ip addresses are used by spammers. However, as CBL themselves put it (emphasis added):

The CBL is specifically intended to be used to filter email coming into a mail server from the Internet.

In "tech-jargon", it's intended to be used on email going to your MX, NOT your user's "outbound SMTP server", nor for anything other than email.

As this is not a supported use of the CBL, please do not contact us about these problems (unless this is a static IP address that belongs to you only, in which case you should treat this is a virus/proxy infection - see: scanning your machine).

Instead, you should be contacting the provider of the service you're trying to use.

A.k.a. Typepad. The chief reason not to use this for anything other than email is, as CBL put it here, because if you have a dynamically allocated ip address (as I do), it's possible to avoid unwarranted CBL listings with emails - but not with, say, blog comments.

I am seriously, seriously annoyed at a service that would do this. I.P. banning is a notoriously useless and unfair means of controlling those who abuse the internet.


MGS Swan Song is Liquid Spurt

On seeing these images on the news last night, my first thought was that they were from shiny new toy Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. MRO has, however, been wiling away its time taking pictures of the robot party on Mars. The images above, which span a period of four years, are the work of Mars Global Surveyor. NASA lost contact with MGS over a month ago, around the same time as its 10th anniversary. The reason the pictures are so important is that they are the first compelling evidence that liquid water still occasionally flows on Mars. There is a sad, but still slightly hopeful article about MGS at its official site, here.


Dione, Shadows

It seems that some of Cassini's more striking images recently featured in National Geographic. Although none of them are new, this image of Dione against a ring-shadowed Saturn has particularly taken my fancy. If you think you have a handle on this whole 'big balls of rock and ice whizzing around in enormous elliptical paths' thing, please click this image and stare at it until you are suitably befuzzled by the strange and beautiful universe we live in.


A Story about Impersonators

I came up with the last two sentences of this story in a flash of inspiration, and wrote the rest to fit it.

The Impersonators

(An Homage to Lovecraft)

I check that the door is locked for the hundredth time this evening, and that my shotgun is loaded. The sun is low and bloody red, pushed down toward the desolate landscape by heavy black clouds. Wind rushes into the town from the mist-shrouded moors, rattling at broken, boarded-up windows.

I am the only one left in the town. It has stood here for well over a millennium, in various forms. Digging in the stultified soil, amidst the tangled roots of poison weeds and stinging nettles, one may find the decayed remnants of centuries old farming tools, of arrowheads or pots. It was never a successful town, too far removed from the world, too difficult to coax life to take root in its soil, but there were people here for that thousand years, and they were as happy as people are.

But then, almost thirty years ago, they began to come. They never spoke, made little impression with their sickly features and quiet murmurs. And yet, with their strange and hideous garb and their disturbing midnight gyrations, they unsettled the local population, striking some instinctual notion of wrongness and revulsion. As the extent of their profane practices came to light, people began to flee in horror. Gradually, the natives all moved away.

The newcomers kept coming, from all corners of the world. Mostly men, but women too. Crossing oceans and mountains to get here - no barrier too great. Sometimes, of a grey evening spent alone, I wonder if they are called here by the strange remnants of prehistoric stone circles that half-protrude from the sodden ground in the derelict town centre. The Romans tried in vain to destroy those structures, to dash them into rubble as best they could, but for what purpose, no-one can discern. Then again, perhaps the ancient people who built those strange altars, in that dark and primordial era when fire was a strange and dangerous technology, perhaps they were themselves called by something deeper and more intrinsic to this landscape. In my dreams I can see clearly that it is related profoundly to whatever twisted perversion of geologic forces led to the creation of the gnarled, black spire of Witchdeath Mountain, that blots out the morning sun 'til ten, and even then casts its shadow over those esoteric and archaic stone relics. But when I wake, the revelation fades and I lose my certainty.

I am an old man now. I saw the town falter then fail. But I will not leave as long as I have buckshot for my weapon and the strength to swing a bludgeon. I may be doomed to lose this battle, but I will not surrender. I cannot give in; I cannot remain true to myself as long as this blasphemy against human civilisation itself continues. And, as my vision and mind fade, and the life leaves me day by day, I realise that my belief in myself is the only thing I could possibly lose.

You see, this town is where Elvis impersonators come to die. The trouble is... they don't stay dead.

Space Cat Laundry Basket

"Unfortunately my mission to Pluto had to be postponed when I was unable to find the 'on' button."

"This image was taken by a paparazzo shortly before I attacked him and stole his camera, which is why I am able to post the picture here."

"Apparently I am gorgeous."


Impulse Buy: Part Deux

It's an ornament for fishtanks. Hopefully, keeping it on my book shelves will not break the Universe or something.


O Typepad, Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me? et al.

Typepad seems to have decided it hates me all of a sudden. On the rare occasion that the comments box actually loads, it then times out when I try to submit it. I get the same thing happening when I try to comment with my old computer so it must either be a problem with Typepad or my ISP. Given that other people are clearly able to comment on the same blogs that I'm trying to, I strongly suspect that Typepad really must hate me all of a sudden. I wonder what I did?

Perhaps I should try and email some flowers to the Typepad server?

EDIT: As mysteriously as the problem began, it has now ended.


Friday Cowboy Blogging

There was something very peculiar about Doc [Holliday]. He was gentlemanly, a good dentist, a friendly man and yet, outside of us boys, I don't think he had a friend in the Territory. Tales were told that he had murdered men in different parts of the country; that he had robbed and committed all manner of crimes, and yet, when persons were asked how they knew it, they could only admit it was hearsay, and that nothing of the kind could really be traced to Doc's account. He was a slender, sickly fellow, but whenever a stage was robbed or a row started, and help was needed, Doc was one of the first to saddle his horse and report for duty.
Virgil Earp